Date: September 2006

Column/Title: Experimenting with Tradition: Naturally Flavored Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids

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In beverages, there are added flavorings - and then there are added flavorings. On one hand are traditional, natural flavorings: anise seed in many liqueurs and spirits or jasmine flowers in jasmine tea. On the other are newer flavorings, those that have been pouring in endless invention out of the chemistry lab of pop-modernity.

Most flavorings added to whole-bean coffees fall into the latter food-chemistry category. These flavorings, from hazelnut and French vanilla to feverish creations like Irish creme, bubble gum and Snickerdoodle, are added to the whole-bean coffee after roasting. Regrettably, a very powerful medium is needed to help these flavorings penetrate the beans and carry into the cup. The almost universal medium used for this purpose is propylene glycol, a presumably safe food additive despite its sinister name. However, propylene glycol is not as safe for flavor as it apparently is for health. In fact, it adds a cloying faux sweetness and a metallic finish that together tend to dominate the coffee and blur its character with brassy persistence.

What about genuinely natural flavorings, however, flavorings that do not need to be boosted by a flavor-distorting medium like propylene glycol to make their presence felt in the cup? Flavorings analogous to the oil of bergamot used in Earl Grey tea, for example, or the jasmine flowers in jasmine tea? Such flavorings have an added appeal: They tend to reflect traditions and histories peculiar to the beverages with which they are associated.

Coffee tradition offers a few such pairings. Some, like the roast-and-ground chicory root added to New-Orleans-style coffee, are traditions that may have originated for reasons of economy or necessity, but have persisted because the combination tasted good to many people and became a familiar part of their sensory culture. Adding various spices to coffee, especially cardamom, is another tradition that may be as old as roasting and brewing coffee itself.

For this month's reviews we tried to gather as many examples as we could of coffees flavored in ways that do not depend on propylene glycol or similar flavor-intrusive media. We did include one line of coffees that uses alcohol as a flavoring medium because we found that the alcohol does not seem to distort the sensory character of coffee in quite the peculiarly persistent, cloying way other media like propylene glycol do.

The twenty-plus samples we put on the table basically fell into four categories: - those that add chicory to coffee in the New Orleans tradition; - those that add other natural ingredients - roasted soy, pinon nuts, cocoa nibs; - those from Indigenous Coffees that add various traditional spices and extracts; and - those from Passion Cafe that add natural flavorings and extracts on traditional themes but using alcohol as a medium.

Most blends from Indigenous Coffees and Passion Cafe, particularly those that incorporate spices or spice extracts, seemed imbalanced by almost excruciatingly heavy doses of flavoring.

Or perhaps the spices themselves were at fault. Perhaps these companies used processed or concentrated "extracts" that lack the softness and complexity of the unprocessed products. Fresh vanilla bean, for example, is an almost foolproof flavoring for coffee, whereas vanilla "extract" can be sharp and unsatisfactory. A half-inch or so of fresh vanilla bean put in a blade grinder with some equally fresh coffee beans will produce an exquisitely harmonious, sweet, complex blend of coffee and vanilla. Perhaps true vanilla bean was too expensive for these companies, however, or perhaps there are other inhibiting technical issues involving freshness and delivery.

A balanced exception among the otherwise over-the-top spice-themed blends was the Aztec Chocolate from Passion Cafe, which added extracts of chocolate and habanero chile to the coffee in an alcohol base. In this case the flavorings seemed to have been added with considerable tact. The chocolate resonated well with the natural chocolate tendencies of the coffee while the chile added a quiet supporting heat, more felt than tasted.

Moving from spices and extracts to more substantial additives, samples that added soy or pinon nuts to coffees (Rocamojo, New Mexico Pinon Coffee) netted beverages that seemed rather odd and arbitrary from a flavor perspective, as neither substance added much to the coffee except body and a rather disturbing vegetal sweetness.

But perhaps my palate is not tuned correctly to appreciate these experiments. Perhaps one needs to already enjoy eating roasted pinon nuts, for example, to enjoy drinking coffee brewed with roasted pinon nuts. Perhaps such pinon-nut familiarity accounts for the number of local awards New Mexico Pinon Coffee has rung up despite the tendency of the pinon component of the blend to totally dominate the coffee component.

I was considerably more taken by the Jeremiah's Pick Chocotal, a coffee blended with cocoa-nibs. Cocoa nibs are the husked and roasted seeds of the cacao tree before they are processed into chocolate. When combined with a medium-dark roasted coffee, the nibs contribute flavor notes that are primarily nut-like, walnut say, but with pleasantly sweet chocolate and perhaps molasses-like undertones. From a coffee drinker's perspective, what's attractive here is the balance between the impact of the coffee and the nibs.

Achieving that balance is one of the main challenges for creators of traditional chicory-and-coffee blends. Roast-and-ground chicory root became popular in Europe as a coffee substitute, particularly in France during the Napoleonic wars when a British blockade cut off coffee imports. Later, chicory's status as a home-grown product continued to make it an inexpensive and politically attractive alternative to imported coffee (support your local chicory grower) in many parts of Europe. But its persistence in New Orleans and elsewhere would seem to be owing to how it tastes rather than how much it costs or where it comes from.

All five coffee and chicory blends we sampled this month achieve an attractive balance, but the three we chose to review were particularly successful at harmonizing the contributions of chicory and coffee. The Fou Frog blend from The Roasterie (89) allows the character of a lovely, low-acid, floral-toned coffee to subtly merge with the supporting fruity weight and piquancy of chicory. The Big Easy blend from the Orleans Coffee Exchange (86) is more intense with more chicory character and a brighter, more assertive coffee component. The ubiquitous and surprisingly good canned French Market blend (85) displays an authentically heavy chicory and dark-roast character.

Perhaps when blenders develop a longer history and more experience with other natural ingredients we may experience similar discrimination and balance of coffee and flavoring across a fuller range of possibilities.

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